Greatness in music is greatness in character. No more fitting epitaph could pay tribute better than this statement on the loss of drumming great Johnny Williams. But the death of an outstanding musician often causes us to pay tribute exclusively to the musical man, rather than the total man. This unfortunate and all-too-common tendency among the chroniclers of music limits our perspective of the very thing that sets these individuals apart from the rest of the musical world. Johnny Williams not only possessed the skills necessary for musical superiority, but also maintained a philosophy of learning that complemented his life.
Williams began his musical life as a drummer in his high school band in Bangor, Maine. During one evening’s performance, he was asked to fill in for the drummer of the University of Maine band, which happened to be performing on an adjacent stage. The young Williams’ drumming talent was enough to impress the music director, and he was immediately offered a permanent position in the band. His stay at the University of Maine, however, lasted only a year. Williams knew that his career depended on his ability to make contacts in the music business. He felt that the best way to achieve this would be to study privately with the eminent George Lawrence Stone in Boston. This afforded him both the musical training he needed and the opportunity to work as a musician in a major city. During this time, Williams also attended the New England Conservatory, believing that this would round out his formal musical training.
He continued to work as a drummer and percussionist in Boston for six years, under the direction of many prominent conductors of this period. Among these were such notables as Leo Riceman, Jacque Reynard, and Jack Miller. It was also during this time that he met then trombonist—and later comedian with Bob Hope—Jerry Colonna.
After marrying his wife, Esther, in 1929, Johnny Williams was off to New York City. He began working with Joe Herlihy’s band and later with the Raymond Scott Quintet. The Scott Quintet became commercially successful, playing lively upbeat melodies in the early swing tradition. The group later was featured on Saturday Night Swing Club broadcasts with top jazz musicians of the day and also was featured in numerous films. Perhaps Williams’ most memorable contribution as a member of the group occurred when he was called upon to instruct Shirley Temple on the basic rudiments for a playing sequence during the film Little Miss Broadway. The lessons given to Shirley Temple made the headlines and paved the way for yet another facet of Johnny Williams’ musical career—teaching. Besides teaching Gene and Allan Estes, who are both prominent Los Angeles studio artists, Williams taught drumming great Gene Krupa how to read music. In the years that followed, Krupa became a good friend of Williams, and the two of them shared their experiences often.
Besides being a gifted player and teacher, Johnny Williams was a devoted music listener. He loved Count Basie and Fats Waller, and during those more prejudiced times, he used to take them into “whites only” bars and order their drinks for them. Williams’ kindly gesture of friendship was not without risk of a backlash and can only be described as daring for the time.
During his New York years, Williams became the most “in demand” drummer during the early days of radio. He played with such notables as Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Frank Sinatra on the Lucky Strike Hit Parade. As a staff musician, his drumming sounds were heard regularly on the Kraft Music Hall, Hallmark Hall Of Fame, and the Bell Telephone Hour shows. He also recorded with Fred Astaire and Ethel Merman. Perhaps most important was his work with Kate Smith, which would culminate in his playing on the original recording of the American classic “God Bless America.”
With such a feverish playing schedule and obvious talents as an established musician, studying privately during this time would seem impossible—even unnecessary. But Williams was not fond of surprises and preferred to stay one step ahead of the current trends. Besides studying general percussion with Gus Moeller at this time, he also began taking classes at Columbia University’s engineering department.
Williams eventually emerged with his degree and transplanted himself to the West Coast in 1947. His desire was to remain in music, but he had prepared himself to make a living regardless of the outcome in California. Fortunately, he did find work and soon became a permanent fixture as a staff musician at Columbia Pictures. He also did free-lance work at Universal under conductor Stanley Wilson.
His prophesies about the music business proved to be correct, as radio and recording technologies soon began sending many of the musicians that made up the New York scene to the unemployment office. It did not take long for the technology of New York to migrate west and cause the same massive unemployment for West Coast players. This marked the “end of an era” of the full-time staff musician, and “on call” soon became the method of finding musicians to work in the studios.
While many fine musicians took to the streets during the late 1950s to protest the inevitable, Johnny Williams accepted it as change and applied to Bendix Aviation in Burbank to begin his new career as a draftsman. For most, the predictable 9-to-5 routine of a draftsman working at Bendix might have been the beginning of a slower pace and a time to reflect on an already full life. But Johnny Williams didn’t believe in looking back—always ahead. While others were content to speculate about the adoption of a future hobby or interest, he valued performance over talk.
In his remaining years he became an avid outdoorsman, fishing the seas and hunting game. He became an expert marksman and won many national championships in pistol competitions. As age slowly forced Johnny Williams to develop more sedentary interests, he discovered oil painting and woodcarving, and studied it diligently at the Los Angeles Art Center. A voracious reader, Williams surrounded himself with books and dictionaries to quench his thirst for knowledge.
Williams saw to it that his children all learned an instrument. The question was never, “Would you like to learn music?” but always, “Which instrument?” Johnny Williams didn’t believe in forcing his children to play professionally—only to make music an integral part of their lives. His son Jerry is a free-lance studio drummer in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Don is the staff drummer at The Schubert Theatre in Los Angeles, playing for Broadway shows such as Cats, A Chorus Line, and Sophisticated Ladies. Both sons perform regularly with the Glendale Symphony. Another son, John T. Williams, conducts the Boston Pops Orchestra and has provided America with some of its most memorable music in films, television, and specially commissioned works. Daughter Joan majored in music at U.C.L.A. and is herself an accomplished pianist.
It is clear that Johnny Williams believed in making every moment of his life a productive one. In doing so, he set an example not only for his family members, but also for all those who knew him. Most mortals feel life is fleeting, but Johnny Williams proved that one life is plenty if we respect each moment as it comes. He was a great drummer, as well as a marvelous human being.